How learning works, and why you should do it

Hi folks! I’m marginally sorry for the slow pace of posting recently. You see, I’m about to receive my D.Sc. degree so there are some bureaucratic gods to appease, plus thanks to my newly-grown family spare time is at a premium.

In any case, today’s post is gonna be about soft stuff. So not FEA or even machines today. Instead, we’ll talk about learning, and a little bit of luck too. Yay…?

Still here? In that case, enjoy today’s short post:

Of learning

Learning is peculiar. I’ve written before how many things and processes in life follow the Pareto principle. Go 20 % of the way, and reap 80 % of the benefits. Really profitable, in both the literal and figurative senses, when you exploit it properly.

Learning doesn’t. At least not in my experience. Not in general, anyways.

Often, when you start learning something new, you are not really even starting. Because, put in a cliche-esque way, you don’t know what you don’t know. Fumbling blind in the dark is all you do, until you happen to find some thread to follow.

You, thinking you’re getting started.

Once that happens, then you start learning.

And that’s when the Pareto-like growth happens.

Except that it doesn’t take you 80 % of the way.

Nope, those initial easy gains won’t earn you a place in the big boys’ and girl’s table. Often, they don’t even earn you a place at the little kids’ table.

What they might earn you is to be allowed to stay in the same room. And that only applies if you know how to behave without making a total ass of yourself. (The animal kind of an ass – a symbol of stupidity in many cultures for some reason. Unless you really don’t the how to behave. Then the literal ass might apply.)

In other words, the easy part only gets you started, once you know where to start in the first place.

The true 80 %

What really gets you the 80 % is The Grind. The slow, incremental process of study, lectures, courses, and practice. You can add your preferred method here – there are lots.

Now, you can speed up the initial fumbling part a lot. A skilled teacher can get you started in no time. Notice, by the way, that I used the word “skilled” rather than “knowledgeable“. The best doers often make abysmal teachers, especially if they have forgotten how it feels to be worse-than-novice. Or have never been there in the first place. But I digress.

By contrast, within the Grind there is no substitute for hard work. A good teacher or a resource can exponentially speed up your journey, yes. But it’s still you who has to walk the walk, no matter how good your gear is.

The peak

Getting to the very top is whole another story, again. (I’d like to think I’m slowly getting there with winding loss FEA in electrical machines in 2D, so I do have some experience to talk from. But that’s about it.)

Obviously, hard work still plays a role. But sheer talent is also getting more and more important. It’s very, very hard to get amongst the top in something you simply weren’t built for.

And of course, passion helps with the hard work part.

However, what I’d claim is even more important is picking your battles. At least as far as acquired-knowledge type of skills go.

What I mean is once you really start to learn a particular skill, you also start to realize how much you really don’t know. How much more you still could learn, if you put your time into it.

Which you can’t do – there are only so many hours in a day.

So you have to pick one, or at most a couple.

Of luck

So what has any of this do with today’s second topic – luck?

Well, the gap is bridged by an article I read recently, about what separates “lucky” people from the “unlucky” ones. One of the factors: recognizing opportunity.

How does that relate to learning, then?

Well, if there’s something I dislike, it’s the “I’ll never need this” people (when learning is concerned).

You often meet them in high school math lessons. Or by traveling back in time to meet me during my last year of Master’s, taking one last course on graph theory.

Which, incidentally, I ended up needing some mere months later, for solving reluctance networks.

A lucky coincidence, wouldn’t you say?

I’d argue there’s little to do with luck, and much more to do with the opportunity recognition thing I just mentioned moments ago.

Simply put, you learn a skill, and you start seeing ways to apply it. Ways you’d otherwise never even known existed. Like how to solve a network problem via a spanning tree.

More often than not, you will find a way to apply that will-never-need piece of information you just acquired. You only need to look around a little.

Another example: I utilized my paternity leave to learn a little about servers and how the Internet works in general. Meanwhile, some of my research group are building an app for electrical machines, and by chance decided to do the heavy lifting on a server rather than inside a mobile phone. Well, guess who’s now involved in the same project?

Again, this is mostly not luck – the project has been going on for more than a year, and will continue doing so in the future too. For me, it was sufficient to learn my webby-stuffy at any point during that long-ish window of time to get sucked in. Plenty of chances for that.

Conclusions

  • Learn new stuff. You’ll need it.
  • Get somebody or something to show you the ropes in the very beginning. It saves time.
  • After that, work smart.

-Antti


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Of Learning and Luck

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